ORLANDO – Located right off Orange Blossom Trail, it looks like a quiet ranch house, but in truth, the home at 1313 30th St. actually represents so much more.
There’s a kitchen inside, and a shower, and a living room where folks can relax on the couch – exactly what someone would expect from any ordinary home. But for the people who stop by every day, it’s actually a refuge from a terrible problem they’re confronting: homelessness.
“I serve anywhere between 65 and maybe 80 people a day, twice a day,” said Ed Johnson, a cook who works at the facility known as the Pathways Drop-In Center.
Pathways is a very special place, said Deanne Adams, who noted that it was established 18 years ago by a man named Nelson Kuhl, who had himself known what it was like to suffer from homelessness, brought on by mental illness. Kuhl suffered from schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by a disintegration of thought processes and of emotional responsiveness.
That condition left him homeless many times in his life, and he felt stigmatized by others in the community who either were afraid of him or ridiculed him, said Adams, a liuentenant with Orange County Corrections who also heads up the Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team of Central Florida.
A frequent volunteer at Pathways, Adams said Kuhl wanted Pathways to be a safe place for the homeless, where they could get a meal, shower, find new clothes, or just spend time with one another.
“He wanted to create an environment,” Adams said, “where the mentally ill could go, where they would not be stigmatized and made fun of.”
On Saturday, Orange County Corrections joined with other law enforcement agencies to host the annual Christmas Celebration at Pathways, providing a barbecue, music, and new clothes to the homeless people who come there.
But as Adams noted, once the holidays have come and gone, Pathways is still going to need two things: more volunteers to help run it, and more donations from the community to keep it operating.
Although Pathways has received some state and federal operational grants, and some financial aid from Orange County’s municipal government, the bulk of the facility’s funding comes directly from the public.
“It’s all done through private donations,” Adams said, “by people in the community who want to help out. Their help allows the homeless to get two meals a day, and they can wash up and take a shower here.”
Cindy Corrado, a risk management investigator and officer with Orange County Corrections, noted that the people who work at Pathways are also suffering from a mental illness.
“It’s a drop-in center for the mentally ill who are homeless, and it’s run by the mentally ill,” she said. “These people live in the woods. It’s sad.”
The facility clearly could use more resources, Corrado added. She noted that the appliances in the Pathways Café – or kitchen – are aging badly.
“We’re in need of a little help here,” she said. “The stove is residential, and we clearly need a commercial one. And it’s not like Pathways has a maintenance department. We don’t have a lot of money.”
But the facility serves another purpose for law enforcement, Corrado said: as a way for people convicted of crimes to do their community service work by volunteering there.
“We are constantly bringing our work release inmates out here,” she said. “People who have to do community service work ordered by the courts come out here and trim the hedges and do other things here. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
So is the fact that the homeless people who come to Pathways worked with Orange County Corrections to build a garden in the back yard. The people visiting Pathways have been growing vegetables there, Corrado said, and this work gives them a great sense of purpose and accomplishment.
“We built this garden to give them something to do for themselves,” she said. “It gives them a sense of taking care of something. Look at this garden. We have tomatoes coming up now.”
Pathways is also a place, Corrado said, where the people who come here can get their Social Security checks, while representatives from the Lakeside Behaviorial Center make periodic visits.
To make a donation, people can log on to Pathways Drop-In Center.
“We’re really reaching out to the community to help Pathways,” Corrado said, adding that assisting the homeless also helps keep them away from any criminal activity.
“Our goal here daily is to keep Pathways open so people won’t have to go rob and steal and say ‘I’m so hungry I had to hold up 7-11 for a muffin,’ “ she said. “If we can keep this place open, then we can keep them out of jail.”
To learn more, call 407-843-5530.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.